Do You Really Need to Wear Your Retainer Forever?

Congratulations on taking your braces off! I’m sure retainers were the last thing on your mind during your orthodontic journey, but now you’re faced with the necessity of wearing them full-time. You might wonder if you’ll really need to wear a retainer forever, or if there will come a time when you can give your mouth a well-deserved break.

Long-term retainer wear may seem daunting, but it’s a compromise we have to make, and I’ll explain why in this article. We’ll also explore when it’s time to switch to nighttime-only wear, sporadic wear and eventually giving up on retainers altogether.

Will You Need Retainers for the Rest of Your Life?

When I have my first consult with new patients, I always warn them of the necessity of wearing retainers for at least 2-3 years after orthodontic treatment, in some cases, possibly for the rest of their lives. Because of all the excitement, this information barely registers, and the shock only sets in once the braces come off.

So, will you need to wear retainers for the rest of your life? It’s normal to ask yourself this question since retainers will become such an integral part of your routine for years to come.

And the answer is “it depends”. It all depends on how perfectly straight you want your teeth to be. Because if you can accept some slight shifting, you can probably stop wearing retainers after a few years.

This need for perfectly straight teeth creates an unrealistic expectation about how nature really works. Teeth will shift over time regardless of whether you had braces or not, it happens to all of us if we look closely (it happens to my naturally straight teeth, and I’ve never had braces).

If you’ve been in braces and experienced significant crowding, rotations, or narrow arches, your teeth are more likely to shift, hence the need for wearing a retainer for a longer period of time.

The reason why most orthodontists recommend lifetime retainer wear is because we can’t guarantee anything. We can’t guarantee how your body, mouth and teeth will respond to the forces they’re subjected to. Some people do just fine, others experience dramatic relapse and crowding. So, to keep it safe, we recommend long-term retainer use.

However, this can be unrealistic, especially for people who got braces at a young age. I’ll touch on that later in this article.

And lastly, another aspect of lifelong retainer wear is that you’ll need to change your retainers with fresh ones quite frequently. Here’s an idea about how long your removable retainers will last you:

The lifespan of Essix retainers

Essix retainers are made of clear plastic. They’re a popular choice since they’re more comfortable and less noticeable than traditional retainers. However, their lifespan is shorter, usually lasting 1-3 years depending on use and care, so expect to change them a few times.

Most Essix retainers end up cracking or bending and not fitting properly. You can potentially expand their lifespan by taking great care of them, cleaning them regularly, avoiding exposure to extreme heat (like forgetting them on the dashboard of your car), and refraining from eating or drinking anything other than water while wearing them.

Most people prefer to change Essix retainers sooner rather than later, though, since they can develop some staining and smell which can make them unappealing.

The lifespan of Hawley retainers

Hawley retainers are made of metal wires and acrylic, which makes them more durable and long-lasting than Essix retainers. They typically last 5-10 years, but their lifespan is highly dependent on how well you care for and maintain them. Regular cleaning, proper storage, and minimizing forceful bending of the metal wire can help extend the lifespan of your Hawley retainer.

In conclusion, while wearing retainers indefinitely might be unrealistic, finding a balance between accepting some natural movement and maintaining the results achieved from your orthodontic treatment is essential.

Talk to your orthodontist about the best retainer option and maintenance plan for you, and remember that maintaining your beautiful smile is a lifelong commitment. It’s ultimately up to you if you want your teeth to stay put or shift a little bit.

Can You Wear Your Retainers at Night Only?

So, you’re wondering if you can wear your retainers just at night after the initial period of full-time use. Good news! After around 3 to 6 months of wearing your retainers full time, you can usually switch to wearing them only at night.

Full-time retainer wear is a huge commitment, and beyond those initial months, it’s really not necessary, especially since it’s so inconvenient to deal with them at meal times or while speaking.

Wearing your retainers only at night is a more comfortable option, and it’s also effective as well, provided that you wear them for the recommended number of hours, and don’t skip nights.

This should be obvious, but “nighttime” is a loose term for many people. The recommended time for wearing retainers at night is 8 to 10 hours. If you’re getting less than 8 hours of sleep, perhaps start wearing your retainer during your downtime, right before bed.

I recommend you develop a routine where you eat dinner, brush your teeth and put the retainer on for the remainder of the night. It’s a great way to stop mindless snacking, and it ensures your teeth stay put.

You will need to keep wearing your retainers at night for at least 2 more years, I recommend 3 years if you can. In fact, most orthodontic offices stop checking retainers regularly after 2 years, and they really leave the decision up to their patients, mostly for practical reasons.

This doesn’t mean that 2 years of retainer wear is enough for everyone, but it’s a sufficient amount of time to be able to move on to sporadic wear.

Wearing your retainers sporadically simply means that you’ll be wearing them every other night, or something like 3-4 days out of the week, indefinitely. I don’t like this approach because it seems so random and irregular, but some people thrive using this option, and skipping some days.

If you’re wearing your retainer every other day and you notice that you need to force them in slightly, it’s because your teeth are shifting and sporadic wear isn’t enough. In this case, I suggest you go back to nightly wear.

When Can You Give Up on Retainers Altogether?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to when you can give up on your retainers. The decision depends on factors like age, dental hygiene, orthodontic history, and how your teeth have responded to the treatment.

That being said, here are my personal recommendations:

If you’ve had braces as a teenager, you might consider giving up your retainers 10 years post-braces. By this time, your teeth should have stabilized. However, keep an eye on your teeth and if you notice any shifting, it’s time to get a new retainer.

Now, if you’ve had braces as an adult, it’s best to try to wear retainers as long as you can, perhaps well into your 50s. If teeth shifting isn’t an issue for you, esthetically speaking, then you can consider giving your retainers up. In this case, your teeth should stabilize in their most comfortable positions and I believe they won’t shift too drastically.

A wire, or fixed retainer, might be advised by your orthodontist too. Wires usually need very thorough dental hygiene as they tend to hold onto plaque and can cause oral health problems. This is why I recommend removing fixed retainers after a couple of years.

Ultimately, it’s essential to remember that every person’s teeth are different, and proper retainer use varies from one individual to another. Communicate with your orthodontist and follow their recommendations on when and how long to wear your retainer, to keep your smile looking fabulous.

Can You Use Your Old Retainers as Aligners?

Yes, you can use your old retainers as aligners, but with some precautions, and only if it hasn’t been too long since you stopped wearing them. So, if it’s been months, not years, of not wearing your retainers, it should be fine.

But why would you consider using your old retainers for aligning slightly shifted teeth?

Well, for one, aligners are an investment. They require a good deal of time, effort, and money, especially with popular brands like Invisalign. Sometimes, life happens, and you might find yourself facing minor relapses in your teeth alignment. That’s where old retainers come into play.

To realign your teeth, simply put your old retainers on and wear them full-time for at least 3 months (obviously, you’ll need to take them off for eating and brushing). Your retainers should feel very tight, but you should still be able to put them on and take them off, as well as seat them correctly. Once the retainer fits comfortably, switch to nighttime wear.

If it’s been years since you last used your retainer, or if it feels extremely tight, you can still try to wear it, but proceed with caution. First, try fitting it on without pushing too hard. If you encounter resistance, it’s best to give up on using the old retainer – it can cause gum recession and trauma to your teeth. Instead, consider either getting new retainers to match your current dental situation or opting for clear aligners to treat the relapse.

Final Thoughts

Teeth have a natural tendency to shift over time, especially if the forces that keep them in place aren’t balanced. Wearing a retainer can help counteract those forces and keep your teeth straight.

Taking care of our teeth is a lifelong responsibility, and wearing retainers will become a habit in no time. Ultimately, when you decide to stop wearing your retainers is up to you, but I get why you might feel torn – straight teeth are a big deal! Retainers are the only way to keep them perfectly aligned, so it’s worth considering wearing them for as long as possible.

Whether you’re new to braces or a braces veteran, taking care of your teeth and gums during orthodontic treatment is crucial. That’s why I’ve put together a list of orthodontist-recommended tools that will make caring for your braces a breeze:

  • An awesome mid-range electric toothbrush. Rotating electric brushes are much more effective, in my opinion, than sonic ones. You can keep your teeth white by using whitening replacement heads.
  • A countertop water flosser to blast out food debris between teeth. I know handheld models are tempting, but you’ll need a lot of water. You can almost replace flossing with this and your gums will be healthier.
  • Braces accessories to get into all the nooks and crannies: straight or angled interdental brushes, floss threaders, orthodontic wax or silicone. For pain management, have gel ice packs handy, Orajel, and Mouth Magic (a cool soothing solution for mouth sores).
  • For clear aligner patients, a tool like PUL helps both remove and seat your aligner or retainer. Don’t forget to use a cleaning product like crystals to keep your trays fresh and hygienic.

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